Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Caussidière for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848 to 1851 for the Montagne of 1793 to 1795, the nephew for the uncle. And the same caricature occurs in the circumstances of the second edition of the Eighteenth Brumaire.
Karl Marx. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
Neither Hegel nor Marx, of course, were familiar with such new dramatic modalities as “reality television,” “storyscaping,” or the “alternate reality game” or with the capacity of “fandoms” organized around dramatic franchises to exercise a hold over their members comparable to that of historic religious communities. Over the course of the past 75 years the boundaries between art, advertising, and reality –including political reality– have gradually broken down, so that it is now not at all unusual for someone to follow an advertising campaign primarily because it tells a good story, only to turn around later and find that the product or service it was promoting has mysteriously become a constitutive dimension of their lives, or to engage in “real world” activity as a form of entertainment, only to find that reality, partly as a result of their activity, has suddenly changed.
It is in this context that we must analyze and interpret the events of 8 November 2016, a date which, it turns out, just happens to be the 18th Brumaire CCXXV of the French Revolutionary Calendar. Our historical points of reference, though, are no longer the Bonapartes –uncle and nephew– but rather the leaders of “original” fascism, Mussolini and Hitler, Franco and Salazar on the one hand and a reality television star and not especially successful real estate magnate whose very existence would probably have been impossible eighty years ago. And our dramatic points of reference are not tragedy and farce but rather the totalitarian propaganda film (think Triumph of the Will) and an alternate reality game gone awry.
Much of the analysis of this election has, thus far, treated it as a reflection of strategic political realities which, it is claimed, were hitherto ignored or at least vastly underestimated: the economic and cultural anxiety of the “white” working class, and of white working class men in particular, on the one hand and of millenials and other marginalized intelligentsia on the other.
While there are many versions of this “standard model,” they all claim, broadly speaking, that while Barack Obama offered both of these sectors at least some modest prospect of “change,” Hilary Clinton was perceived as the candidate of a globalist “establishment” centered on the finance, technology, and information sectors of Capital, allied with the privileged technogentry and infogentry (those elements of the intelligentsia still able to earn monopoly rents on innovation and skill), immigrants, and ethnic minorities that benefit from global Capital’s multiculturalism if not, perhaps, from the economy it has created. Some who had voted for Barack Obama (mostly “white” workers) actually supported Donald Trump; many more simply stayed home, resulting in the “Republican” victory on the 18th Brumaire.
Those familiar with my work will know that both my interest and my analytic and interpretive expertise are focused on the underlying longue durée global and grand strategic level of politics. But in this case the focus on what are ultimately mid-range strategic factors is fundamentally misleading. We are, in fact, in danger of fundamentally misunderstanding the configuration of forces in the conjuncture we are about to enter and making disastrous political mistakes.
First, the strategic factors cited by the standard model are nothing new. Displaced white workers who take out their marginalization by Global Capital through attacks on immigrants, African American and Latino workers, and women are nothing new. This is the constituency first mobilized by Richard Nixon in 1968 using the Southern Strategy, albeit for political aims which would now put him well to the left of most Democrats. And anyone who followed the election campaign with any care had already, by 8 November, consumed volumes of analysis pointing out that the beast which the Republican Party awakened in its effort to find a new base after losing African Americans and the intelligentsia to the Democrats had in fact gotten out of control. Nor were any serious analysts unaware of the “Bernie or Bust” phenomenon. It is just that the consensus “net assessment” going into the election, based on both underlying demographics and the strength of the Democratic “ground game” and opposition research, pointed clearly to a Clinton victory. This never meant that white racism and infantile leftism could simply be ignored. We just didn’t expect them to be decisive in this election.
Second, the standard model draws fundamentally incorrect conclusions from its privileging of mid-range strategic over both a longue duree and operational factors. The implication is that in order to recover their majority, the Democrats need to offer more to displaced “white” workers and marginalized millenials. The problem is that, realistically, there is not much more to be offered. There is a long history of very well thought out attempts going back to the 1980s to chart a different, gentler, and less deindustrializing path through technological progress and globalization, focused on high technology infrastructure investments such as high speed rail and a greater focus on capital goods production for export. But while these efforts drew significant support both from the labor movement and from relevant sectors of Capital, they had essentially no electoral traction. While it is far too late to turn the tide on deindustrialization, infrastructure investments, high technology and otherwise, together with training to support the movement of at least some displaced workers to the new, high technology manufacturing sector which is emerging, form an integral part of the Democratic platform. These efforts have been consistently blocked by a Republican Congress. The more which Trump has promised, bringing back industries which have been dead for 35 years, and the specific way of life they supported, is a chimera.
The same is true of the promise of “free college” so popular among millenials. Are there compelling reasons to support universal, free access to higher education, liberal, professional, and technical? Absolutely. Liberal education, which cultivates free human beings and engaged citizens capable of taking and defending an independent position regarding questions of meaning, value, and public policy is a condition of authentic democracy. And given our technological trajectory, what human labor remains in demand requires increasingly complex skills. But for too long we have sold higher education as a means of upward mobility. This was always a distortion of the fundamental purposes of the university and an exaggeration of the economic benefits it conferred on graduates. Historically a university education facilitated, even if it did not “guarantee” a “middle class lifestyle” because it was the privilege of a few, who enjoyed monopoly rents on their skills. Expand access and thus the supply of the skills in question and the rents and the associated privilege go away. At this point only the most capable, best connected, and most fortunate graduates of the best and most prestigious universities enjoy even a shadow of the privilege a university education once conferred, and that, too, is fading.
Once again, the Democratic Party has already advanced credible, realistic proposals to curb the exploitation of the most vulnerable students by for profit schools, to promote free access to community colleges and, more recently, to address the problem of student debt more generally. Unfortunately, these moves have also been accompanied by an accountability regime which attempts to hold universities to a standard incompatible with their civilizational purpose –a question we have addressed elsewhere and will continue to engage. But how far should our prioritization of higher education, which still benefits a still relatively privileged segment of the population, go? Given the fact that the transition to clean energy remains terribly underfunded, that as the demand for human labor declines the need for a basic income for the truly unemployable becomes more and more imperative, given the fact that health care is still out of reach for many, and given both the need for and the economic and social benefits of infrastructure investment, can we really make “free college” our highest priority? For those who point to the European example, it is important to point out that while most European countries subsidize higher education far more generously than the United States for those who gain access, most also restrict admission to students demonstrating a high order capacity for university level work, and track other students towards polytechnics and vocational training. Fully subsidized university education for a comparably narrow, highly capable and selected group in the United States would attract very little support.
The deeper strategic reality behind both “white” male working class and millennial-intelligentsia rage is that humanity has entered a very difficult transition. Technological progress really is, as Marx expected, gradually rendering human labor (working in order to survive) redundant and opening up the possibility of a future in which everyone can devote their lives to seeking wisdom, doing justice, and ripening Being. But the industrial stage in the development of technology, from which we have not yet really emerged, has come very close to rendering our planet uninhabitable. And historic socialism, which Marx thought could both accelerate the process of technological progress and give it a more human face, turns out to have been simply a strategy for primitive capitalist accumulation. Its historic function largely complete, historic socialism collapsed and no new movement towards authentic communism, understood as the full decommodification of labor power, has grown up in its place. The process of technological progress remains under the leadership of Capital, which functions more and more as an autonomous power distinct from even the historic bourgeoisie (which remains attached to various liberal, democratic, socialist, and national-populist variants of the humanistic project).
Marx, furthermore, profoundly underestimated the spiritual conditions for communism. If democracy requires universal liberal education, communism requires, if not that we all achieve sainthood, enlightenment, and sagehood, then at least a life consecrated to seeking perfection along one of humanity’s many spiritual paths (which in this context includes those which understand themselves as secular and humanistic). This is because even once technological progress renders labor, understood as working to survive, redundant, human beings, precisely because we are so godlike, and can “imagine greater,” even imagine infinite and necessary Being, will never be satisfied. Labor may give way to creative work, but scarcity can never be overcome. It is also necessary because taking joy in a life of creative labor, while it comes naturally to human beings, also requires cultivation, without which a frank confrontation with the redundancy of human labor could indeed lead many to fall into lives of meaninglessness and despair. The beginnings of such despair are, indeed, part of both “white” male working class and millenial rage, as they have been of all earlier fascisms and infantile leftisms.
Because of this our current historic trajectory remains towards deepening ecological crisis and towards the marginalization of ever broader sectors of the population. We are on a transhuman and even posthuman trajectory, in which Capital, as an autonomous power, cultivates the technological capacity for ever higher degrees of productivity without regard to the ecological, economic, political, or cultural requirements of human development. Whether or not this could terminate in a fully posthuman artificial intelligence or not remains a disputed question. With or without such an intelligence it would, I believe, be an evolutionary dead end.
The real question about The Eighteenth Brumaire of Donald Trump is what it means in the context of these broader realities. In this regard it is important to recognize that Trump’s victory was, in many ways, the accidental result of a game, even if this game was, in the end, a very serious one. His campaign, first of all, did not prioritize winning the presidency. Rather, it was directed at the repeated public demonstration that he could act outrageously with impunity, that he could, as he claimed at one point, “shoot someone on Fifth Avenue” and not lose significant support as a result. Where there was a choice between pursing this aim, even at the cost of some support, and adopting a more moderate, statesmanlike demeanor, Trump consistently chose the former path.
The accidental character of the Trump victory is also apparent from the fact that not only the Democratic Party, the press, and the political analysts on which they rely, but also the Trump campaign and the Republican Party clearly expected him to lose. Had he or anyone else of significance expected him to win, his transition would not be in such disarray.
Trump, finally, shows no evidence of actually wanting to be President, even now that he has apparently been elected. On the contrary he continues to expend much of the political capital he will need to govern by making outrageous statements, appointing political marginal to high posts, refusing to adhere to established ethics norms, and even saying that he might not move into the White House.
What happened on 8 November, was, rather, a confluence of relatively independent actors working for disparate aims which, perhaps purely by chance, perhaps as the result of a higher structural and systemic degree of causation, combined to produce an unexpected result. The first of these actors is the Republican Party which, ever since its embrace of the Southern Strategy has worked to divert the rage of displaced “white” and especially “white” male workers in a racist and misogynist direction, appealing to the ideological complexes we discussed in Beyond the Color Line: the Protestant Ethic and the distinction between “makers” and “takers” on the one hand and the Lockean Exception which imputes to African Americans the status of hereditary felons on the other. More recently, in response to demographic changes and the successful mobilization of minority voters by Barack Obama, the Republican Party has devoted itself to long term, systematic voter suppression. These suppression efforts were seconded and reinforced by the scare tactics employed by the Trump campaign.
The second actor in play was the Russian state, which, seeing itself as the vanguard of that most ironic of formations, a national conservative (read fascistoid) International, engaged in cybernetic espionage in order to collect and reveal information which it believed would be harmful to Hilary Clinton and the Democratic Party. The Russian state was aided in this regard by elements on the international infantile left, especially Wikileaks. The resulting disinformation and distorted information further suppressed Democratic support. Whether or not there was direct interference in vote counts in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, as some have argued, remains to be seen.
The third actor in play was the criminal justice system acting through the Federal Bureau of Investigation. As we argued in Beyond the Color Line, the criminal justice system is a relatively autonomous structure which embodies one of the principal forms of racist ideology in the United States, namely the Lockean Exception, which argues that if slavery is allowable only as penalty for a crime, then slaves and their descendants must be hereditary criminals. This mechanism is of little obvious direct use to Capital, which no longer depends on slave labor. But it has also proven itself remarkably resistant to supervision by the democratic state, perhaps because as more and more of the population becomes redundant, Capital will need the criminal justice apparatus to keep order among an ever larger dispossessed mob. And so it was not surprising to see the FBI violate tradition by releasing “new information” regarding the Clinton email investigation shortly before the election, again further suppressing Democratic turnout.
The combined result of these actions has been to bring a fascistoid government (or perhaps loose coalition government which contains actually fascist, as well as other elements) to power, grouped around a “strong man,” a Bonaparte, who may or may not embrace a destiny as Fuher. We have considered elsewhere in The Crisis of the Republican Party and the Danger of Fascism the underlying fascistoid elements in the Trump candidacy. For now it remains to explain just why fascism might not only find an audience in the present period, but actually return to power.
Historic fascism was, on the one hand, an attempt on the part of weaker rising imperial powers (Germany and Italy) or declining imperial powers (Spain and Portugal) to militarize their countries in order to secure or defend a colonial empire. But it was also an expression of sado-masochism and despair of those, both petty bourgeoisie and proletarian, left behind by the process of capitalist development. In the present period, as Global Capital takes on the character of an autonomous power, old imperialist bourgeoisies find themselves increasingly marginalized. Some are gradually, if also reluctantly and inconsistently turning to the left, hoping that technological progress will open up a transition to a society beyond industry and beyond labor in which humanity’s growing wealth will be more broadly shared –without their own privilege being called seriously into question. The future they envision, while not authentic communism, is one in which, supported by enormous technological progress, they have retired to a life of (very comfortable) philanthropy and hired the old proletariat as their program officers. The liberal order and the democratic state, which allow them to reign in and regulate an otherwise increasingly autonomous Capital, and to preserve a role for humanity and an ecosystem which makes human life still possible, are essential instruments in pursing this end. Others, however, especially in the more backward sectors of the economy, cling to their identity as capitalists and seek to undercut entirely, rather than merely redirecting, the technological and social processes which are underway. The national conservative, populist, racist, and patriarchal sentiments of displaced workers provide them with a way of doing this.
It is impossible to say with certainty at this point in time, and at a considerable distance from the main actors, whether or not significant elements in the Trump coalition actually intend to create something like a new fascism, or to otherwise seriously damage the liberal and democratic order. But they have already had the effect of pulling the system in this direction. This is especially alarming considering the fact that such tendencies are also apparent not only in Europe (including, especially Russia) but also in India and China, which have both moved in a more narrowly nationalistic and authoritarian direction in recent years. Islamic fundamentalism, of course, as well as many of the more secular nationalisms it contests (such as Baathism), are also in this broad camp. While petroleum prices are currently very low (itself, no doubt, a source of rage for the extractive bourgeoisie), as we reach and pass peak oil, the monopoly rents this sector can command, and thus its ability to build and project power culturally, politically, and militarily, will increase enormously.
The greatest danger, though, is not that backward elements in the bourgeoisie will leverage antiglobalism to create a new kind of fascism. The underlying technological trends are too powerful for such a regime, however destructive, to prevail in the long run. What concerns me, rather, is that Capital itself, understood as an autonomous power independent of any sector of the bourgeoisie, might leverage a new fascism to undercut what might otherwise be an emerging alliance of the vast majority of humanity dedicated to conserving the integrity of an ecosystem which can support human life and to building a human future beyond labor, a future in which human beings would no longer be treated as batteries and in which everyone could seek wisdom, do justice, and ripen Being. If the decisive actor in this election was not some alliance of the backward sectors of the bourgeoisie with fascistoid intellectuals (the alt-right) and displaced “white” male workers, but rather Capital itself … well that would explain why the outcome was so unexpected. The Right, for good reason, honestly believed itself to be playing a game in which the rules were rigged against it -not because of some dark conspiracy, but because of the enormous power of underlying, ultimately progressive technological and social trends. Somewhere along the way, it seems, the rules of the game were re-written and a handful of effective gambits by the Right were able to outmatch the overwhelming strategic and operational superiority of the Center Left. Reality itself was altered by actors the “lead” among whom, at least, seemed –and still seems– to be doing nothing more than playing.
Whether the apparent electoral victory of Donald Trump was result of a purely accidental confluence of ultimately secondary actors or the product of a higher system and structural causation, and whether anyone besides a few alt-right advisors actually intend fascism, the response must be a broad popular front against fascism. We must unite not only the working classes and the petty bourgeoisie, men and women, so-called “whites” and oppressed minorities, but also the very significant progressive sectors of the bourgeoisie to resist at every turn the normalization of what is objectively an assault on the liberal order and the democratic state. Liberalism and democracy are not sufficient to defeat global Capital, but they are necessary and it is in the struggle to defend them that the contours of what else is required will become clear.
The new dramatic forms which have displaced tragedy and farce are all about not merely offering a new interpretation of reality, but about actually redefining it. This is what Trump’s victory, whoever or whatever has worked it, is all about. But we are, in the end, in a multiplayer game. We know the source code. And we have access to the server. It is time to rewrite the rules and defeat not just this particular “Boss” but the AI which, it seems, may have generated him.